Film Making Film, Making History, and Crossing Boundaries in Washington Heights: A Screening of Sosua: Make a Better World

Saturday, January 9, 2016: 12:00 PM-2:00 PM
Room 213 (Hilton Atlanta, Second Floor)

Peter Miller and Renee Silverman, producer and director (Willow Pond Films, 2013)

Sosua: Make a Better World tells how Dominican and Jewish teenagers from Washington Heights in northern Manhattan created a play about Jewish refugees from Hitler who found safe haven in the Dominican Republic under the murderous dictator Trujillo. The play, directed by Liz Swados, became a way of sharing histories in a divided neighborhood."

Robert W. Snyder, Rutgers University-Newark, and Peter Miller, producer and director, will introduce the film and lead a discussion afterward.

The Audience

Session Abstract

“Making Film, Making History, and Crossing Boundaries” will explore filmmaking, historical consciousness, and ethnic relations through a screening and discussion of the film Sosua: Make a Better World, a 53-minute documentary about Dominican and Jewish teenagers from the neighborhood of Washington Heights in northern Manhattan who came together to create a play about a little-known episode in their shared history. The session will appeal to public historians, urban historians, filmmakers, and historians of ethnicity and immigration.

Washington Heights has long been a home for immigrants, migrants and their children. Like many New York City neighborhoods, it is a place of deep divisions and informal boundaries. Since the 1920s, Broadway has divided whites and blacks, Irish and Jews, Dominican-born and American-born, affluent and poor.

Although the neighborhood was known for German Jewish refugees from Hitler who arrived in the 1930s, by the 1980s it was the site of the largest Dominican community in the United States. Jews and Dominicans both contributed to local activism in the late twentieth century that saved the neighborhood from housing abandonment and high crime, but ties between the two communities were limited. 

In our session, we will screen and discuss a documentary about neighborhood bridge building, Sosua: Make a Better World. The film chronicles the creation and performance of a musical play--Sosua: Dare to Dance Together, directed by Liz Swados--about Jewish refugees from Hitler who found a refuge in the Dominican Republic of Trujillo. The dictator admitted the Jews to bring more white people into his country and to divert attention from his slaughter of Haitians in the Dominican Republic. 

The film Sosua: Make A Better World carefully records Jewish and Dominican youth learning each other’s histories, and discovering what they share (memories of dictators) and don’t share (the same streets in a divided neighborhood). At once a celebration of the arts and examination of the challenges of bridge building, the film explores ethnic relations, collective memory, urban cultural geography, and the problems and rewards of sharing history.

Our two-hour experimental session will begin with opening remarks from our moderator, historian Robert W. Snyder, author of Crossing Broadway: Washington Heights and the Promise of New York (Cornell, 2015). He will speak briefly about the general history of Washington Heights and the flowering there, since the drop in crime, of a local history and arts scene that produced the play and film about Sosua.

Peter Miller, producer and director of the film with Renee Silverman, will speak for five minutes about Sosua: Make A Better World, how it came to be, and how it fits into his own body of work. (His film on the Sacco and Vanzetti case won the John E. O’Connor Award for best historical film from the AHA.) 

We will then screen the film, which runs just under one hour, and then open up to questions and comments from the audience. Snyder and Miller will conclude with final thoughts.

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